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Last Updated: Tuesday, 19 September 2006, 07:41 GMT 08:41 UK
Beirut festival's defiant gesture
By Saeed Taji Farouky
Beirut

Film festival's artistic director Eliane Rehab
The Beirut film festival's artistic director Eliane Rehab says Lebanon will soon be a cultural beacon again

One of the world's most unlikely and ambitious film festivals is under way in Beirut, little more than a month since a fragile ceasefire between Hezbollah and Israel was reached.

Ayam Beirut al-Cinemaiya (Cinema Days of Beirut), which has been running since 2001, was organised almost six months ago.

When Israel's bombardment of Lebanon began on 12 July, it was assumed the festival would be cancelled.

But artistic director and film-maker Eliane Raheb informed guests that it would go ahead as a sign of "cultural resistance".

Under the circumstances, this year's programme had to be cut down from over 100 films to just 40.

Artistic protest

The selection includes films about the Arab world - from the world premiere of Lebanese director Michel Kammoun's Falafel to James Longley's latest documentary Iraq in Fragments, winner of the Director's Award at this year's Sundance festival.

Ask any of the organisers why the festival was not cancelled and they all give the same answer - to prove to the world that no matter what happens, life will go on.

They were inspired by a letter from film-makers at July's Biennale du Cinema Arabe, urging them to run the festival despite the dangers.

Poster from the Beirut film festival
There was no airport, there were only a few planes and we were organising a festival and bringing films from outside and inviting people
Remi Bonhomme, festival communications director

A pointed artistic protest was soon delivered - a series of over 20 short video letters from Lebanese film-makers both in the country and stranded abroad, reacting to life under the Israeli blockade.

Bassam Fayyad, a documentary director with the al-Arabiya news channel, co-created one of the video letters.

"I want this festival to say that Beirut is still creating," he states. "Beirut survived the war and Beirut is coming back."

Even The Metropolis Cinema in Beirut's Hamra district, one of the festival's screening venues, is charged with significance.

The city's only art-house cinema had its official opening on 11 July, the day before the Israeli bombardment of the city began.

Hania Mroue, festival director and Metropolis founder, began housing refugees in the cinema space and organised workshops and screenings to keep the city's besieged residents distracted.

Beacon

"People continued coming to the cinema the next day, even though war had started," she says.

"They came. I don't understand how and why they came even though Beirut was being bombed, but they came. And even the third day they kept coming."

Apart from attracting local audiences, organisers also faced the difficult task of flying in 40 visiting film-makers into Lebanon.

"There was no airport, there were only a few planes and we were organising a festival and bringing films from outside and inviting people," says Remi Bonhomme, festival communications director.

A scene from Iraq in Fragments
James Longley's Iraq in Fragments is being shown in Beirut

"We didn't even know if there would be planes at that time or what the situation would be in the country."

Mr Bonhomme adds that the festival is not only a distraction for war-weary Beirutis, but a powerful sign to the Lebanese people that they have not been forgotten.

"We have people saying I want to come to Beirut, I want to be part of this," he adds.

While the country's physical reconstruction may take years, Ms Raheb is confident that Beirut will be back as a beacon of Arab arts and culture long before then, saying the Lebanese have been "trained" to deal with war for decades.

This year's festival will play an important role in the reconstruction of her city - all but two international guests honoured their invitations, and screenings are enjoying large audiences.

Ms Raheb will soon begin to reflect on this latest chapter of Lebanon's troubled history through another documentary film, and start planning for the next festival.

But others find the future is impossible to contemplate.

"We are still living in a war, in a region that is supposed to be reshaped through violence." Mr Fayyad says.

"We are still living this moment, and I don't think it will be over in a few years, so the question is what can we do during the coming violence?"

Ayam Beirut al-Cinemaiya Film Festival runs in the Lebanese capital until 24 September.


SEE ALSO
Director chronicles wife's return
15 Jul 06 |  Entertainment
New Arab cinema tells intimate stories
23 Aug 04 |  Middle East
Country profile: Lebanon
31 Aug 06 |  Country profiles

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